Tim Farron calls on universities to provide better support for victims of rape and sexual assault

If you suffer some severe personal trauma which affects your academic performance, you can ask the university to take those “extenuating circumstances” into account. This publication from the Univesrity of Bristol explains more about what that means:

Generally, extenuating circumstances are circumstances which are unforeseen, unpreventable, and have a serious impact on a students’ academic performance. It is not possible to compile a complete list of circumstances, as each case will be considered on its own merit, but two common examples that can be regarded as extenuating circumstances are:

• Serious personal illness: For example, an illness requiring hospitalisation, such as appendicitis.

• Bereavement: For example, the death of a close family member.

According to the Sunday Mirror, Tim Farron has written to all university vice -chancellors to ask them to ensure that victims of rape and sexual assault are able to ask for these extenuating circumstances to be taken into account.

Mr Farron said: “The trauma of sexual violence is immeasurable and I worry that universities are not being clear in the extenuating circumstances for students.

“There should not be any shade or loopholes in this. Universities should have a consistent approach.

“I have written to all vice-chancellors to ask them to be ensure that their university offers clear guidance and extenuating circumstances to any student who is a victim in such horrific cases, and to the National Union of Students who have done much to raise awareness in this area to ask for their support in pushing for these changes.”

I do understand that Tim is trying to ensure that victims of rape and sexual assault are properly supported by academic institutions but I’m not sure that he goes far enough. He used to work in both further and higher education and so knows how the system works and the point that he is making is valid. However, there is so much more that the institutions should be doing.

Five years ago, NUS research found some pretty chilling facts about female students:

  • 12% have been stalked while at university or college;
  • In 60% of these cases of sexual assault or stalking, the perpetrator was also a student;
  • Only 4% of women students who have been seriously sexually assaulted have reported it to their institution;
  • Only 10% of women students who have been seriously sexually assaulted have reported it to the police;
  • Of those who did not report serious sexual assault to the police, 50% said it was because they felt ashamed or embarrassed, and 43% because thought they would be blamed for what happened.

By 2014, the number of  students suffering unwanted sexual touching had gone up to 1 in 4, with over a third of women saying that they had experienced this.

I’d have liked to have seen Tim talk more about the need for universities to take a more proactive role in preventing sexual assault by tackling the “lad culture” on campus. However much certain individuals don’t think they need it, raising awareness about consent is important. If 60% of sexual assaults are perpetrated by fellow students, then more needs to be done before that happens. Once it has happened, women are very reluctant to come forward because of the reaction that they think they will get, so we also need to make sure that if they do, they will be dealt with sympathetically.

Last year NUS did an audit of what universities were doing to tackle lad culture and found that there were significant gaps, with almost half having no policy on sexual harassment and only 1 in 10 taking action on sexist and discriminatory material. The latter, of course, is an issue for liberals on freedom of speech grounds, but there does need to be some consideration about some of the events held by student unions which are by their nature demeaning to women.

Another important factor is the evidence which comes from the recent Scottish Social Attitudes Survey on violence against women:

 

There is also considerable evidence that whether or not someone holds stereotypical views on gender roles makes a difference to their perceptions on domestic abuse. Those who did not hold stereotypical views on gender roles (that is, those who would be willing to buy a 3 year old boy a doll as a toy) were more likely to be critical of abusive behaviour than those who did hold stereotypical views (that is, they would refuse to buy the boy a doll).

By the time students get to university, a lot of this damage will have been done, so tackling it much earlier is important, but universities could do something to tackle perceptions about gender roles.

So, good stuff from Tim Farron. I just think that his letter to the vice-chancellors could have been more wide-ranging.

 

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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5 Comments

  • Phil Beesley 10th Jan '16 - 5:15pm

    On a student forum, I was startled to read that a common route home for students at my nearest university was described as “surprise sex park”. No further comment from me about lad culture.

    Welfare workers at universities may be employed by the university or student union. They work with students with financial or relationship problems, those who struggle with university work, family problems etc. Welfare workers co-operate with colleagues working with students with previously identified support needs.

    Academic related staff , departmental admin staff, porters and cleaners all associate with students; it is not just about academics. A university is a big place.

  • These articles are sadly depressing. The sources cited are the same old “push” research that are designed to inflate the numbers. I don’t doubt the good intentions of those who look to maximise the numbers of people try and generate these inflated numbers (presumably to “raise awareness” by getting a good headline), but in reality they divert efforts from the more productive to the less productive. There are these mass “teach not to rape” classes (based upon the dubious assumptions) aimed at the whole student body when effort is much better focused upon a small number of key offenders. Others have criticised this work elsewhere but to grab an example at random, one “problem” identified was that students didn’t know about policy regarding sexual harassment, I have lunch in a Weatherspoon’s pub I don’t know what their policy is either but if someone attacks me I am fairly sure that they will act, my knowledge of the policy is not what matters simply that they have an effective one. Does anyone believe that Student Unions and Universities haven’t had policies on these for years?

    Also the current mind set is very much an anti-free speech position and liberals should be very concerned about that, the answer to speech you don’t like is not banning and punishment but better speech. I find it interesting you link to George Lawlor, who has received harassment for expressing his opinion that the consent classes were pointless, challenging the institutional consensus.

    As for demands for universities acting on criminal matters, we should be very sacred by that the US already is suffering the chaos of that, reversing the burden of proof doing away with due process, all of these things should worry liberals.
    http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/man-receives-sex-act-while-blacked-out-gets-accused-of-sexual-assault/article/2565978

    I imagine that Tim’s office are well aware of the difficulty that this area faces which is why he didn’t start making statements based upon research and statements that are skewed (even if with good intentions). He was completely right to avoid blundering in to a very complex topic with claims about what would solve them, when similar attitudes have caused significant problems when used in the US. I for one am pleased that Tim appears to be taking a measured approach to difficult questions.

  • Stuart Armstrong 11th Jan '16 - 6:58pm

    I wouldn’t take that NUS research overly seriously. It drew its conclusions from 2000 responses received from an online web survey.

  • Stuart Armstrong 11th Jan '16 - 7:30pm

    For further clarification, it’s impossible to know whether the 2014 survey is representative of university students.

    It states that there were ~2150 respondents but doesn’t tell you how many people were given an opportunity to take the survey, or how/where that survey was presented to them. If it was given to visitors of the NUS website, then the audience is going to be interested in student politics. Sexual assault being a problem on campus is an NUS position, so readers of their site are more likely to agree with that position. Plus if you’re into student politics you’re more likely to be disaffected in some way, meaning people who have faced sexual assault are more likely to be among that group.

    If the survey was introduced as “Please take a short survey regarding sexual assault on campus” that would further skew the pool of respondents, as people with strong opinions one way or the other will be more likely to click the link.

    These sorts of problems makes the survey practically worthless.

  • The tragedy is that the effects of sexual assault are long-lasting, so it can be hard for a university to take a realistic account of these as extenuating circumstances (which also makes it much harder for someone to rebuild their life).

    I wonder how far attacking “lad culture” helps: it might be better to do something around recognising that we all have the capacity to behave in a way someone else could experience as sexually abusive, and all have a responsibility not to do that.

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